A film review by Craig J. Koban December 9 , 2019

RANK: #9

RANK: #1


2019, R, 209 mins.


Robert De Niro as Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran  /  Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa  /  Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino  /  Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno  /  Bobby Cannavale as Joe Gallo  /  Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino  /  Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano  /  Kathrine Narducci as Carrie Bufalino  /  Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran

Directed by Martin Scorsese  /  Written by Steve Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Brandt


At the risk of opening up a comparative can of worms here, THE IRISHMAN is the AVENGERS: END GAME of Martin Scorsese films, which euphorically showcases the acclaimed Oscar winning director returning to the mafia drama after a long absence with all of his acting super heroes that have graced his previous films in tow, featuring the likes of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel.  THE IRISHMAN marks the first collaboration between Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci since 1995's CASINO, with Pesci in particular coming out of a long self-imposed retirement.  This is also Scorsese's first mob/crime effort since his 2006's Best Picture winning effort on THE DEPARTED.  And, to add extra unbridled excitement to the mix, THE IRISHMAN astoundingly represents the first teaming of star Al Pacino and Scorsese.   

So, yeah, to say that there are unprecedented levels of giddy anticipation for loyal Scorsese devotees that matches the biggest efforts in the MCU would be the grandest of understatements. 

Most crucially, THE IRISHMAN feels like a grand culmination of 77-year-old filmmaker's entire crime centric career, which kicked off 46 years ago with MEAN STREETS and coasted confidently on through to later films like GOODFELLAS, CASINO, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED.  What's so fundamentally different this go around, though, is the fact that Scorsese has forged an unprecedented partnership with Netflix to see his 3 hour and 29 minute and $180 million budgeted production to final fruition, after being in years of development hell and a waiting period of required time for moviemaking technology to catch up with his vision (more on that in a bit).  Despite the fact that Scorsese has abandoned a traditional studio and full theatrical release model (which is par for the course for most Netflix films), THE IRISHMAN was given an early and far too short theatrical release window, and I made a personal and committed effort to screen the film as the director intended it.  After devoting nearly four hours of my time in a darkened cinema I can now proudly proclaim that THE IRISHMAN is far and away the best film that I've seen in 2019, an epic, sprawling, and audaciously crafted crime drama that masterfully spans nearly five decades in the lives of its respective characters and more than highlights Scorsese working at the peak of his aesthetic powers. 

THE IRISHMAN takes inspiration from the 2004 non-fiction book I HEAR YOU PAINT FENCES (which is the film's unofficial title, with no reference being made to THE IRISHMAN in the credits) by Charles Brandt, who chronicled the life of Frank Sheeran, who claimed up until the point of his death in 2003 that he was not only a mafia thug that "painted houses" (mob code for blowing people's brains out on the walls during targeted hits), but that he was also primarily responsible for killing and ensuring the infamous disappearance of Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa.  The last part has never been historically substantiated, so it should be noted that THE IRISHMAN could be aptly described as being loosely based on history (the film is entirely told from Sheeran's perspective, employing a voiceover narration track from this retirement home residing and approaching death hitman).  Whether this man did indeed kill Hoffa is up for debate, but the film is a vast and enthralling kaleidoscope of his memories traversing through his history in crime and how that intersected with many significant historical events (like JFK's election and subsequent assassination, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and, yes, Hoffa's own up and down legacy as the leader of the Teamsters).  According the Sheeran, Hoffa was "as big as Elvis" in the 50's and "bigger than the Beatles in the 60s," not to mention second to the president for being the most powerfully influential man in America at his peak. 



THE IRISHMAN arguably has the least glamorous opening of any Scorsese crime flick, shown with a slow and lingering camera in one beautiful take careening through the lonely halls of a retirement nursing home before landing on the well past his prime and wheelchair riddled Sheeran (De Niro), who then proceeds to break the fourth wall by becoming the narrative's storyteller.  What ensues is a mosaic of his life's memories, from his time serving in WWII that then cascades through the 40s right up until the 2000s.  In an early memory we witness Sheeran as a lowly truck driver post-war, during which time he has a very chance meeting while fixing his rig with a prominent and powerful Pennsylvanian based mobster named Russell Bufalino (Pesci), and through him Sheeran gets introduced to the rest of this crime family, including the likes of Felix DiTullion (Bobby Cannavale) and the "Gentle Don" Angelo Bruno (Keitel).  By the time we roll on into the 1950s Sheeran has become a loyal member of this family, committing multiple hits...er...house painting jobs...up until the point when he has a meet and greet with Teamster President Hoffa (Pacino), which builds to a long friendship and business liaison between Hoffa and the mob back home.  Unfortunately, Hoffa's limitless ambition and drive to re-claim power of the Teamsters leads to Bufalino and Bruno concluding that he needs to be taken care of...and with Sheeran being torn between both sides.  

And we all know what happened (or, do we?) to Hoffa in July of 1975. 

Many filmgoers and critics have stated that Scorsese is just up to his old bag of mob genre tricks here in THE IRISHMAN, but nothing can really be further from the truth.  Teaming up with screenwriter Steven Zaillian (who most famously wrote SCHINDLER'S LIST and later GANGS OF NEW YORK and the terribly underrated MONEYBALL), Scorsese has a different thematic end game with THE IRISHMAN.  This film is steeped in mafia lore and history, to be sure, but it's almost less an examination of the mob and more an enthralling commentary on mortality, loss, regret, and what it means to live and ultimately die alone and with the whirlwind of conflicting emotions that runs through someone that has committed unpardonable crimes for most of his life, leaving physical and emotional scars on countless lives.  Death is a constant in the film (Scorsese utilizes freeze frames and semi-amusing title cards that explain the grisly details of nearly every mobster and player that's introduced) and reminds viewers that these tough guys and goodfellas either die dreadful deaths, or in Sheeran's case, live an isolated existence as a melancholic old man that will most likely die pathetic and alone.  Scorsese's technique is even more stylistically relaxed and observant this go around as opposed to being kinetic, leaving THE IRISHMAN feeling more calmly reflective in tone.  There's a potent sense of sadness and loss that permeates all throughout this film. 

Tied to all of this is the manner that Scorsese tries to relay the enormity of Sheeran's life, which results in THE IRISHMAN emerging as a technical triumph on top of being a bravura piece of storytelling.  Scorsese has never been a VFX heavy director (even though he's no stranger to using mostly invisible CGI in many of his latest films), but here he takes his craft to a whole new uncharted level of using unprecedented - and well publicized pre-release - de-aging digital effects to make De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and company look credibly young in many of the film's flashbacks.  And we're not just talking a few fleeting shots here and there, but entire sections of the film's runtime, sometimes showing Sheeran, for example, as young as in his thirties and as old as his 80s.  If you get over the fact that most of these actors are well into their 70s and the initial weirdness of seeing them play their character's vastly younger doppelgangers through much of the film, the CG effects slowly start to creep into the background without drawing much attention to themselves, mostly because the performances and scripting are so spot on that you become immersed in the enormity of it all.  Scorsese, like so very few directors, knows that the best usage of CGI is for propelling storytelling forward and not for obtrusive eye candy purposes.  The more time you spend with Sheeran and the players around him the less conscious you're aware that you're looking at digital tinkering at play...and that's what makes the efforts here so pioneering and revelatory. 

Aiding all of this are the superbly rendered performances by this impossibly assembled cast; THE IRISHMAN is pure acting Valhalla.  Pesci himself reportedly had to be asked 50 times to return to the silver screen after his retirement to portray yet another mob figure, but his portrayal of one of the leaders on the Bufalino crime family is almost an anti-Pesci performance when compared to his past work.  In this film he plays a man that has attained limitless power as a mob boss, whereas in GOODFELLAS and CASINO he played a loose cannoned hothead trying to attain power.  One of the pleasures of THE IRISHMAN is seeing him play his boss with such a cold, detached, and calm spoken ruthlessness.  Pacino, on the other hand, serves as an obvious performance foil to Pesci (and how wonderful is it to see these two heavyweights of the mob genre finally play opposite of one another), and his work as the larger than life, but still laced with insecurities and trust issues Hoffa shows Pacino in sublime scenery chewing mode.  It's a role that plays into Pacino's obvious strengths as a theatrical actor, but it's also a sly piece of acting in terms of giving us a layered portrait of this beleaguered historical figure driven by an awful lot of stubborn pride.  Pacino has not been this mesmerizing in a film in years.   

Of course, much of the film is centered on Hoffa's relationship with Sheeran, which gives the enterprise an understated meta quality, seeing as Pacino and De Niro have become screen legends and mutual friends outside of acting and haven't really done anything of substance since their epic pairing in 1995's HEAT.  Watching Pacino and De Niro carry entire sections of THE IRISHMAN is intoxicating on multiple levels, stemming from the performers' long standing real friendship, which allows for them to have such well realized chemistry here.  To be fair, De Niro's post-Scorsese film career has not been all that stellar (I'd even boldly suggest that he's wallowed into multiple garbage roles that have diminished his stature in the industry as of late).  Yet, in a fitting full circle manner, De Niro gives his finest and most layered performance in decades as Sheeran, especially for the deceptively subtle and understated things he does here to suggest how the totality of this man's dangerous life and malicious actions are starting to catch up with him.  This is all driven home during the film's ultra slow burn, but intensely suspenseful final half hour where viewers can fully grasp whole the enormity of Sheeran's relationship with crime and how that has built to a turning point moment when he's devastatingly torn between loyalty to his mob bosses and his friendship with Hoffa.  De Niro has a heartbreaking moment on the phone very late in the film that's almost as painful to endure as a similarly and crushingly awkward phone scene with Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER.  To see De Niro reclaim his past acting mojo is glorious, to be sure. 

There have been some complaints about THE IRISHMAN in regards to his massive running time and its female characters.  In terms of its length, THE IRISHMAN earns its 209 minutes because of the way it respects filmgoers' attention spans and patience, and long-time Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker has done an Oscar nomination worthy job of making all of this multiple time spanning material coalesce fluidly together and to give the narrative a strong forward momentum that rarely feels dull (granted, this movie could have benefited from an intermission for its theatrical release for those with weak bladders).  And in terms of the lack of development of its female characters, it should be reiterated that THE IRISHMAN is told through the narrow tunnel visioned eyes and POV of Sheeran, and because he unpardonably neglected his wife and kids (by his own admission) in life it's fitting that they're given limited screentime here.  Anna Paquin shows up late in the film as Sheeran's long suffering adult daughter, whose younger self had to endure decades of mistrust and fear of her father and the self destructive career he took on.  Paquin says so very little in the film, but her silence and penetratingly disapproving stares communicate decades of hurt and in encapsulating the tragedy of Sheeran's family life.   

Some have also been critical of Scorsese for being hypocritical as an unwavering champion of the power of cinema and pure cinema consumption models that now has turned his back on that to make a film for an online streaming giant.  That's unfair.  I highly doubt that any major Hollywood studio would have greenlit a near $200 million budgeted crime drama with a running time coming awfully close to four hours, so I see Scorsese's partnership with Netflix born more out of creative necessity than selling out of his longstanding principles.  And kudos needs to being given to Netflix for supporting this artist and his vision of his film.  Lastly, Netflix ensures exposure of THE IRISHMAN to the widest possible audience, something that a theatrical release model would have not allowed with limited showtime options being available because of its runtime (that, and a certain House of Mouse studio that owns an alarmingly large chunk of the industry has a dictatorial stranglehold on what's playing in cinemas these days).  If you have to see THE IRISHMAN via streaming, then so be it, but if you can screen it in a cinema as opposed to your laptop or, God forbid, smart phone then seek it out in a cinema.  There's a reason you should: At home you have power over the film: it can be paused, stopped, broken up into multiple viewing sections, and so forth.  When you see THE IRISHMAN in a cinema the film has power over you, and for three-plus hours I felt it wash over and immerse me in Sheeran's history with the mob and Hoffa, so much so that you really felt like you've taken his life's journey with him.  

That's why THE IRISHMAN deserves a cinematic consumption model.  And that's why it's the best film of 2019.  

To quote Pesci's Buffalino, "It's what it is."


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